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The Great Phil Steele

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Fittingly, Phil Steele has long been part of the foundation of in-depth college football coverage.

The college football preseason has become a season all to itself. Ahead of the drama of each fall is the annotated outline for it that is shared every summer. Somewhere between anticipation and analytics is a build-up to the start of a new year that needs no date or declaration. Phil Steele, literally and figuratively, is the tie that binds. 

Steele, the veteran prognosticator, voter and writer, has become a preeminent name on the gridiron circuit by evaluating, organizing and promoting every single aspect of it. Beyond his ever-expanding individual profile and featured role at ESPN, Steele is now a folk-hero of sorts, modest in his delivery, but grand in his design. The ability Steele has to interpret trends and anticipate results, with equal deference given to every FBS team and conference, has become the modern-day status quo.

Furthermore, it, in the form of Steele's annual preview publication, Phil Steele's College Football Preview, is every fan's must-have accessory for the coming months. The magazine isn't just a point of reference, but a point of pride as well; social media is full of posts, casual followers to national pundits, sharing pictures of themselves next to the cover. Like a designer purse or a hand-crafted shoe, Steele's data, in some ways, is a statement; and all for the price of lunch.

If the game had a Medulla oblongata, Steele would have the synapsis mapped out in a color-coded Excel spreadsheet. His highly-anticipated annual magazine, in stores now, is a veritable stream of consciousness for every preseason storyline imaginable. Steele's publication looks and is laid out more like a phone book; difference is, he knows all of these names and numbers. 

"It's 352 pages, so the thing is like a book when you get it. It's thick, it's heavy. And you open it up, if you're a casual football fan, you are going to throw that thing right back down on the shelf; it's just way too much information," Steele shared. "But if you're a hardcore football fan, it's something that can be by your side the entire football year."   

Arguably the only thing more impressive than Steele's in-depth and intertwined rankings is the ease with which he references them. That all-encompassing knowledge base has made Steele a must-book for any sports radio show. Similar to scheduling a celebrity guest, you have to get on a list to setup an interview with Steele, sometimes weeks in advance. There are days when appearing on talk shows, near 20 at times, is all he does. Even still, Steele is gracious and specific, often spending multiple segments wowing listeners with detail.

Steele's brand, giving the near-absurdity of all that is covered, is an engaging mix of both novelty and nuance. Modestly, he helps set the preseason narratives.    

"I've got my summer here. I'm just doing radio shows talking football, so that is fun," he added.

While most people have long championed the cause of the double-spaced, enlarged-font, adverb-heavy brand of writing, Steele uses smaller text and abbreviations and instead. His magazine is the type of work you lean in to look at. You study it more than you read it.

For Steele and his team, the process of preparation is essentially neverending. All that goes into the magazine is truly what makes the product special. Before ever interviewing, editing, and then editing again, there is Steele's remarkable gameday spectacle. His room transforms into his very own sports bar, information, though, serving as his hydration. Though Steele watches a season's worth of football every Saturday in the fall, don't call his surroundings a man cave; the televisions, alone, could light up a small college campus.

"You go through the football season, basically I work a little over 100 hours a week. Saturdays I have 12 TVs in front of me," Steele shared. "Football is barely over, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and it's magazine season. We go through six months of magazine deadline, basically, trying to get this thing out on time. There is so much information in the magazine, everything has to be checked, double-checked. We go through three breakthroughs. I try to talk to as many coaches as I can, about 110."

The reputation Steele has as one of the nation's foremost experts on college football has come with time. Where he is now, just like any of Steele's positional slottings or individual projections, is no mistake; it's meticulous. He tells that story every time he speaks. Steele's magazine release is the official start of the preseason for many, a process, for him, a generation in the making. Kickoff has been more of a bridge than a beginning.  

Though fans may simply see their favorite player or team under Steele's name on bookshelves, what follows is more than just facts and figures, rather a lifetime's worth of work. Those statistics, Steele continues to compile.

"There are times towards the end of the magazine where I think, 'why the heck am I doing this to myself?'" Steele chuckled. "To hear people and see people tweet out things about the magazine and say how they love it, that really is my motivation for doing it each and every year."

Fittingly, Steele has long been part of the foundation of in-depth college football coverage. All that he does is a detailed look at the who, what, when and where of the game that means so much to so many. The how and the why is worth appreciating, too.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports